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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

Romney’s Education Plan: A Promising Start

By Rick Hess — May 24, 2012 2 min read
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Yesterday, presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney unveiled his education program in a speech at the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit. The plan’s themes are good ones: school choice, innovation, transparency, focusing on bang-for-the-buck, and welcoming new quality providers (including for-profit ventures). In a happy development, the plan turns the page on the Bush-era romance with NCLB-style federal overreach (it’s no surprise that former Bush Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is no longer listed as a Romney education advisor).

To be fair, it’s easy for candidates to look good at this stage. After all, at this point in 2008, Barack Obama was still committed to balanced budgets and national unity. But there’s a lot to like.

However, there is also room for improvement. The plan isn’t as thoughtful as Romney will need to be about what the federal government does and doesn’t do well in education, settling instead for vague paeans to choice and “innovation.” Romney needs to argue that the feds can make state and localities do things but they can’t make them do those things well--and that everything that matters in schooling is in the execution, rather than the mere doing (for more, see my recent book with Andrew Kelly, Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit). There was also much less than I’d have hoped on the specifics of addressing the headaches that overcaffeinated federal rule-making have created over time.

Especially in K-12 schooling, where 90% of the money is provided by states or localities, it can be tough for conservatives to talk about addressing our educational challenges without seeming to imply that every idea requires new federal funds or programs. Romney’s plan is far less explicit on this score than he’ll need to be. This is doubly true given that some of his talking points, such as his promise to drive down college tuition, imply grand new vistas of presidential authority. And Romney’s proposal to require states to lift charter caps, embrace open-enrollment, and adopt expansive approaches to virtual schooling in order to qualify for federal aid is practically Obamaesque as far as expanding the federal reach when it comes to state education policy.

Notably, in yesterday’s speech, Romney sought to draw a sharp distinction between teacher unions and teachers--attacking the former, embracing the latter. This is the same maneuver that Bob Dole attempted, with no success, back in ‘96. Dole got crushed 2-1 on education by Clinton, one factor that ultimately led conservative ed reformers to embrace a certain Texas governor’s No Child Left Behind approach in 2000. We’ll see if Romney enjoys more success with this tack.

Bottom line: this is a plan that has good bones. The pluses are real and substantial. And the concerns are things that can be addressed. It’s a promising start.

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